by Giorgio Cafiero and Joshua Hodge
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran disagree these days on virtually all issues facing the tumultuous Middle East. The two countries have opposing agendas on a host of matters, ranging from OPEC’s oil production policies to the U.S. military’s role in the region, as well as the bloody conflicts plaguing the Arab world. Last month, after talks unraveled between officials in Riyadh and Tehran, it’s now official that Iranians will not be part of this year’s annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Authorities in Riyadh maintain that Iran is politicizing Hajj, while their counterparts in Tehran insist that safety is the issue.
Indeed, bilateral relations have worsened severely since last year’s tragic stampede, during which, according to Iranian sources, 464 of their country’s Hajjis died. Iranian officials were quick to accuse the Saudis of negligence, insensitivity, and incompetence. Politicians and religious authorities in the Islamic Republic immediately ramped up their anti-Al Saud rhetoric, further challenging the king’s legitimacy as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
In January the Saudi leadership severed official relations with Iran in response to the violence waged against Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran as well as its consulate in Mashhad – Iran’s second largest city and an important destination for Saudi Shia who routinely visit the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Twelver Shia. These assaults on Riyadh’s diplomatic presence in the Islamic Republic came in retaliation for the execution of the prominent Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on New Year’s Day, a move that enraged Shia Muslims across several continents.
The Regional Security Context
From Riyadh’s perspective, the Islamic Republic is fundamentally a rogue state, committed to wreaking havoc in Sunni Arab countries while undermining the kingdom’s traditional role as a leader in the region. In the words of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, “Iran, rather than confronting the isolation it has created for itself, opts to obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies as well as its support for terrorism by leveling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi leadership considers Iran responsible for attempting to create a Zaidi Houthi proto-state in Yemen on the kingdom’s southern border and for inciting sectarian unrest in Shia-majority Bahrain as well as in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (EP). Iran’s support for the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah also factors heavily into Riyadh’s negative reaction to Tehran’s foreign policy. With the lifting of sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program following last year’s watershed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Saudi officials fear that Iran’s emergence from economic isolation will result in an emboldened Islamic Republic becoming increasingly assertive across the greater Middle East.
Iran attributes the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. Tehran officials accuse the kingdom of sponsoring Sunni extremist groups such as Jundallah (People’s Resistance Movement of Iran), a militant Salafist group designated a “terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department, based in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan Province. New Salafist militias such as Jaysh al-Adl (Army of Justice), an ethnic Baloch organization which support Saudi positions, have stepped up their violent activity targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian police in this unstable province situated along the Afghan and Pakistani borders. Al-Jubeir’s Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently asserted that officials in Riyadh “can continue supporting extremists and promoting sectarian hatred or they can opt to play a constructive role in promoting regional stability.”
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have fluctuated since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Bilateral relations cooled the most between 1991 and 2003 when the Middle East was relatively stable. Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 heralded a new era of greater geopolitical tension between the two countries, as each sought to define Iraq’s post-Ba’athist landscape on its own terms. With no resolution in sight to the Middle East’s seemingly endless conflicts, any significant level of trust developing between Riyadh and Tehran is unlikely. Saudi perceptions of the Obama administration’s failure to take decisive action to secure the region, and a naïve understanding of Iran’s regional agenda, are prompting Riyadh to take more aggressive actions, which naturally elicit a response from Tehran. Reportedly, Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the IRGC, ordered Hezbollah to shift attention away from Israel toward Saudi Arabia in response to the assassination of Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s military commander in Syria. If true, this move would further underscore the dangerous and destabilizing impact of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry on the region.
Implications for the Smaller Gulf Arab States
Situated along the Arabian Peninsula’s eastern shore, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will inevitably feel the heat from the intensifying geo-sectarian rivalry between the Gulf’s two dominant powers. If Saudi Arabia and Iran fail to achieve a “cold peace” or detente, it will be crucial to monitor the actions of these smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
Each of the six Gulf Arab states perceives the nature and magnitude of the “Iranian threat” differently. On one end of the spectrum, Oman and Qatar have vested interests in pursuing deeper cooperation with Iran in the gas sector and on diplomatic fronts. These two governments also maintain cordial relations with their own Shia minorities, which explains why officials in Muscat and Doha have not viewed Iran as an existential threat to regime survival. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, on the other hand, sectarian tensions have fueled political and social tension for decades. Not surprisingly, Bahrain was the only smaller GCC state to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead in fully severing diplomatic ties with Tehran in January.
Kuwait fits between the two sides. Its Shia minority plays important political and economic roles, maintaining a positive relationship with the Al Sabah rulers. Kuwait’s harmonious sectarian relations have pressured the ruling family to strike a balance between Tehran and Riyadh. Kuwait merely recalled its ambassador to Tehran (without severing diplomatic ties) following the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic spat in January, thus underscoring a measured and cautious approach to navigating the Persian Gulf’s geopolitical fault lines and sectarian flashpoints.
Growing tension between Kuwaiti Sunni and Shia parliamentarians in response to regional turmoil suggests, however, that it will be difficult for the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation to maintain its sectarian equilibrium. This balance has served as a linchpin of domestic stability since Iraqi forces retreated from the country in 1991. Recent accusations by Kuwaiti politicians and media pundits that Iran and Hezbollah are allegedly plotting acts of terrorism within the country are also raising sectarian temperatures. Saudi Arabia’s influence over Kuwait via shared ownership of oil fields, Kuwait and Iran’s disputed Dorra gas field, and the ongoing security crises stemming from Iraq’s state of turmoil will factor into the Al Sabah rulers’ strategy vis-à-vis its larger neighbors. If Saudi-Iranian tensions heat up, Kuwait will inevitably come under greater pressure.
The position of the UAE in the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical cold war is complicated by the country’s internal dynamics based on tribal identity. Officials in Dubai, where large numbers of Iranian expatriates do business, view the Islamic Republic through a commercial lens, believing it is best to secure such economic interests through accommodation of Iran rather than confrontation. Two months after the P5+1 and Iran reached the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013, the BBC asked His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, if he favored lifting sanctions on Iran. He replied, “I think so and give Iran a space… Iran is our neighbor and we don’t want any problem… everybody will benefit.”
Abu Dhabi’s perception of Iran, on the other hand, is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s. Officials in the UAE’s capital view the Islamic Republic as a predatory state and a grave threat to regional stability. Emirati suspicion of Iran’s regional ambitions predate the 1979 revolution. The UAE warily viewed Washington’s support for the Shah of Iran, particularly in light of the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, which has remained an ongoing source of significant tension in the bilateral relationship since 1971. The UAE’s leaders even urged the Bush administration to wage direct military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Even following the JCPOA’s implementation, Abu Dhabi’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, declared in the Wall Street Journal that “the Iran we have long known—hostile, expansionist, violent—is alive and well, and as dangerous as ever.” Sharjah, the UAE’s most conservative emirate, also aligns closely with Riyadh on Iran-related matters. Ras Al Khaimah, however, has its own affinity and trade ties with Iran. Moving forward, there is every reason to expect this tension between the UAE’s different emirates to continue complicating the state’s multifaceted and pivotal role in the Persian Gulf’s balance of power.
Ever since the GCC’s establishment in 1981, a common perception of Iran as a regional threat and the shared goal of strengthening Gulf Arab unity in the face of expanding Iranian influence have been primary reasons for the Council’s existence. Yet not all members in the Saudi-led Council share Riyadh’s positions. As Oman and Qatar turn to Iran to counter-balance the kingdom’s geopolitical influence in the region, which Muscat and Doha officials often perceive as overbearing, Saudi officials will likely use their leverage over these smaller Gulf Arab states in an effort to bring them closer to Riyadh. How the smaller Arab monarchies of the Western Persian Gulf play their own cards in terms of balancing their alliance with Riyadh, while exploring the potential benefits of deeper ties with Iran, will inevitably impact the future of the Saudi-Iranian geo-sectarian rivalry for years to come.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyst), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Joshua Hodge is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics. Photo: GCC ministerial (Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Flickr).